Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Quick and Dirty Dozen

I’ve been known to write the occasional book review, but I don’t have time to review every book I read. Besides, peoples’ attention spans are getting shorter by the day,1 and no one wants to slog through an entire review any more. That’d be almost as bad as reading the book itself.

Thus, I present to you the 12-pack: One dozen short reviews, covering a handful of my most recent conquests.

1 Officially 1.26 microseconds shorter, after that earthquake in Chile.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Pretend, for a moment, that I’m a guy. Guys don’t read 500+ page love stories. Yet, right from the opening scene (I don’t count the unnecessary prologue as the opening scene), I was hooked. With time travel involved, Clare can first meet Henry when he’s 35, and he can first meet her 14 years later when he’s 28, and it all makes perfect sense. It’s a very clever premise, and Niffenegger handles it deftly; my only complaint is that the book feels incomplete. Since the focus is primarily on their relationship, we learn of Henry’s time-traveling exploits involving Clare, but get little more than hints of such visits to other friends and family. I wanted to explore all the time-traveling possibilities, but alas, I was stuck in a love story. A pretty damn good one, but still.

I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

The book jacket hypes her as the next David Sedaris, the next Sarah Vowell, the next Dorothy Parker. Even if, like me, you think Sedaris is overrated,2 those are some lofty comparisons for a first-time author. So, does my former college classmate measure up?

No, not quite. I Was Told There’d Be Cake has touches of brilliance, but overall the writing is uneven, and it’s rarely as funny as it’s trying to be. Surprisingly, my favorite essay employed two tactics that usually repulse me (2nd person narrative and scatalogical humor), while the promising “Bring-Your-Machete-To-Work Day” — about the computer game Oregon Trail — failed to hold my interest. Nevertheless, with her sardonic wit, perhaps Sloane will begin to fulfill what the book jacket promised when her sophomore effort comes out this summer.

2 He is, you know. Unless he’s reading his own material, in which case the rating is spot on.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

Although this pseudo-travelogue, originally published in 1889, may begin to physically shed its pages halfway through your reading — as it did for me — its sense of humor remains intact even today. Yes, Jerome might go off on a boring tangent once in a while, but since tangents had only just been discovered earlier that decade, I’ll forgive him such missteps. Had I known more about boating, or been more familiar with the fascinations of the day, I might have enjoyed the book even more. But, I didn’t.

The Invisible Kingdom: From the Tips of Our Fingers to the Tops of Our Trash, Inside the Curious World of Microbes by Idan Ben-Barak

Invisible Kingdom’s introduction promised fascinating tales of microscopic entities, accompanied by copious humor and footnotes.3 The latter were indeed plentiful, though Ben-Barak’s humor never really lived up to my expectations: a chuckle here and there, but really only one laugh-out-loud moment. And while microbes are indeed interesting little buggers – four instance, I had no idea E. coli was doing such good in the world – the book as a whole felt disjointed, because Ben-Barak often chose to cover each microbe separately, without any real segues, rather than create a flowing narrative within each chapter. I was hoping to find another non-fiction treat along the lines of A Short History of Nearly Everything, or perhaps another Stiff, but sadly, it was not to be.

3 Woooo! Footnotes!

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

If you love the written word, and grammar-related humor in particular, then you should read the Thursday Next series, where books are policed by literary detectives. Start with the The Eyre Affair, though; this third installment (of five) isn’t as strong as its forerunners. This is partly because the plot thickens, by which I mean it congeals and doesn’t really go anywhere, and partly because the story is entirely fictional, by which I mean it takes place wholly in the BookWorld, rather than in the “real world” (a.k.a. an alternate 1980s England). Nevertheless, this book does boast one of the best literary exchanges ever in regard to grammar: the “had had” and “that that” problem. Check it out.

Coronado by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane: Fantastic mystery/thriller novelist. Crappy short story writer.

The six stories (technically, five stories and one play) probably would’ve been better if he’d stuck to what he knows: mysteries that take place in and around Boston. That, or he could’ve added monkeys. Everything’s better with monkeys.4

4 Even monkeys.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

Take it from me: Never revisit your childhood favorites. The Neverending Story (the movie) was blah. The Phantom Tollbooth dragged. And M.C. Hammer was a load of crap. Yet, because I’d enjoyed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid, I thought I’d relive the magic by reading the entire seven-book set.

Once I got past the nostalgia of the first book, the series was chock-full of inconsistent narration (mostly 3rd person, sometimes 1st), odd morals (Never eat a talking animal...oh, it’s dumb? Then dig in!), and a new set of child protagonists every time (whose personalities are all pretty much interchangeable). The stories were dull and the ending unappealing. I should have left my memories of Narnia locked up safe in the wardrobe of my brain.

Some people never learn.

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

The personification of Dream is imprisoned for seventy years, then escapes and goes about reacquiring the instruments of his office. Though this collection, containing the first eight comics in the Sandman series, isn’t Gaiman’s best work, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s bad. Calling it good doesn’t do it justice, either.

It’s better than good. It’s Gaiman.TM

Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell

Nine out of ten doctors agree: Cannoli are healthier than guns. If you get shot with a cannoli, it won’t end your life; it just ends the life of the designer blouse that you’re wearing.5

Of course, all of this has little to do with Vowell’s book. She has this flair for weaving historical details into her own experiences, and vice versa. Take the Cannoli may not be as polished as some of her later works, but you can read about such divergent topics as her very first goth makeover, the suffering of the Cherokee along the Trail of Tears, and the time she helped her father fire off a cannoli. Er, cannon.

5 No, I’m not wearing a blouse. You are.

Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life by Allen Shawn

What’s that? Wallace Shawn’s brother wrote a book? And he has something like ten different phobias? That’s got to be an extremely insightful, engaging, and enjoyable read, right?

Yes, no, and no. While Allen Shawn delves deep into his own psyche to try to understand his many fears, he does so with few personal stories or anecdotes about his family. Indeed, much of the book reads like a scientific text. I’m sure it’s a fine book, but Shawn’s quest for knowledge didn’t quite jell with my selfish wish to be entertained, and thus, I gave up halfway through. Without reading the whole thing, I can’t fairly assign a rating... which might be for the best, considering Shawn probably has an irrational fear of flaming wheels.

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley

Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is back, and sleuthier than ever. The opening scene may not pack quite the same punch as that of its predecessor, and it does take a bit longer to get to the meat of the story, but with Flavia once again giving the locals a run for their money as she tracks down a murderer, it sure doesn’t lack for entertainment.

Twelve Red Herrings by Jeffrey Archer

When a book comes right out and tells you that each of its stories has a red herring in it, that sort of defeats the purpose. Overall, the twelve tales were fun and well-written, but because I read each story looking for the twist or the misdirection, I caught it almost every time.

My biggest complaint, however, is with the last one in the collection. It’s a guy-meets-girl type of story, and Archer decided to provide four different endings. I usually enjoy that sort of thing, since we get to see how a small change in dialogue, manner, or timing can effect an enormous change on the full story line. Yet Archer goes about it all wrong. The main character is supposed to be the constant in such stories, with the world changing around him. But instead, in two of the four endings, the character’s back story is completely different. That threw me off, and made the tales less enjoyable.

Or maybe that was the point: those were the red herrings. Damn it, Archer! You tricked me!6

6 You'd have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling kids (to say nothing of their dog).

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